Sally Tompkins was no ordinary woman. Not only did she run a hospital with the lowest death rate of any in the Civil War, but she was also the only woman to be commissioned an officer in the Confederate army.
Sally was born in 1833 into a wealthy family in Virginia, though her father died while she was a child. Not long before the start of the war, Sally and her mother moved from their rural town to the Southern capital, Richmond. After the First Battle of Bull Run, the influx of injured soldiers overwhelmed the hospital system already in place, so President Davis asked that people open their homes to the wounded. Sally convinced a judge named John Robertson to let her turn his vacant home into a private hospital, using the fortune inherited from her father to fund it. She hired a prominent doctor as head surgeon and staffed the hospital with a few other doctors and with female volunteers and slaves. Sally’s hospital—named Robertson Hospital—had 22 beds, and her obsession with cleanliness meant far fewer soldiers died in her care.
Just a month after Robertson Hospital opened, the government decided to close all private hospitals in order to reduce inefficiency and corruption. But Sally wouldn’t let that happen to hers—she arranged a meeting with President Davis and showed him a hospital register that documented her extraordinarily high record of getting wounded men well enough to return to duty. Impressed, President Davis wanted to keep Sally’s hospital open, but the problem was that all military hospitals now had to be controlled by the army. So Davis solved the issue by commissioning Sally as a captain in the cavalry, making her the only female officer in the Confederacy during the war. While Sally accepted the commission, she refused to be added to the army’s payroll, and she became affectionately known as Captain Sally.
Robertson Hospital continued to provide superior care for the duration of the war. By the time it closed in June 1865, only 73 of its 1,333 patients had died, giving it a survival rate of around 94 percent—an unusually high figure for the time.
After the war, Sally continued her charitable works, eventually using up her entire personal fortune helping others. Having never married, in 1905 she went to live at the Richmond Home for Confederate Women, where she died in 1916 at the age of 83.